My favourite reads: Karen Bowden

Here are some great books about the First World War, plus one about an unlikely bond

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)
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Choosing my five favourite reads was like picking eight tracks for BBC radio show Desert Island Discs. Extremely difficult and nigh on impossible. I decided to keep my selection predominantly to historical novels but with one exception. I have always been interested in the First World War and November 11 this year will mark 100 years since hostilities ceased, hence, two of my novels are about the "War to end all Wars".

Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991)

There have been many books written about the suffering experienced by soldiers during the First World War. Most focus on the conditions endured on the battlefield but Pat Barker’s novel centres on the psychological damage. It mixes real people with fictional characters and describes how the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met at Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital in Scotland. The passage describing electric shock therapy given to patients was almost too painful to read, but the dignity of the men stayed with me long after I finished the book.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

The novel spans three generations and tries to deal with the chasm between the First World War and present day. Yet alongside all the horror in the trenches is a powerful love story between the main character Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire. From the destruction of war to the indestructibility of love, I was totally absorbed and as soon as I’d finished had to re-read the novel.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

Again a novel that combines real people with fictional characters. Kingsolver takes us on a vast journey of American and Mexican history from the 1930s to 1950s, dealing with McCarthyism along the way. The main character, Harrison William Shepherd, goes to work for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their guest, Leon Trotsky. Later Trotsky is assassinated, but it’s the description of life in the Kahlo house that fascinated me. I have long been a fan of the artist Frida Kahlo, she had such spirit despite a life full of adversity.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Hero or villain, I was captivated by Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Born into a working-class family he rose to become one of Henry VIII’s most powerful ministers during a turbulent period in English history.  Mantel deals with the politics and machinations of Henry’s court and the many characters therein. But it’s the multifaceted Cromwell who held my interest. I once viewed his portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Gazing at his face I got a strong sense of his power and determination.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)

The original Swedish title of this novel is Men Who Hate Women. One of Larsson's favourite targets in this psychological thriller is violence against women. Lisbeth Salander, a very angry punk girl and Blomqvist, a journalist, are the lead characters and form an unlikely bond. Together they tackle financial scandal, murder and the abuse of women. There was something about the incongruous relationship between the main characters that enthralled me. Their mutual respect for each other becomes, in the end, a love story.

Karen Bowden is deputy picture editor for The National


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